Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II on Wednesday criticized Democrat Terry McAuliffe for wanting to run a government he doesn't understand, while Mr. McAuliffe slammed the Republican attorney general for "bullying" tactics and mean-spirited rhetoric during the second debate between the Virginia gubernatorial hopefuls.
The hour-long contest was less contentious than the candidates' first meeting in July, with each scoring points reiterating themes that have worked for them thus far and neither making critical mistakes.
Mr. Cuccinelli continued a recent attempt to paint Mr. McAuliffe as an "unserious" candidate by saying the former head of the Democratic National Committee "doesn't know how Virginia government works."
"He doesn't understand the issues related to Virginia government," Mr. Cuccinelli said. "He can talk at this topline level like anybody could if they read a few talking points. But he doesn't know how Virginia government works."
Asked about his support of marriage equality and why he doesn't take a leadership role in lobbying on the issue in the General Assembly, Mr. McAuliffe offered a lengthy answer and concluded by saying, "If we can get a bill through the General Assembly and on my desk as governor, I'd sign it."
Mr. Cuccinelli was quick to point out that such an action would require a constitutional amendment — something that would need to be passed by voters and would not come before the governor. Mr. McAuliffe later insisted he was speaking in general terms and that he understood the process, but the exchange underscored Mr. Cuccinelli's criticisms.
Mr. McAuliffe countered by repeating a line of attack suggesting that Mr. Cuccinelli's positions on abortion and gay marriage would be inimical to economic growth in the state. He cited past comments in which Mr. Cuccinelli referred to gay people as "soulless" and "self-destructive human beings."
"My opponent has spent most of his career on a social, ideological agenda," Mr. McAuliffe said. "There are consequences to this mean-spirited attack on women's health, on gay Virginians."
Mr. McAuliffe also accused Mr. Cuccinelli of "bullying" the state Board of Health on safety regulations that some say could shut down most of Virginia's abortion clinics.
Mr. Cuccinelli said the "soulless" comment was "offensively false," telling reporters after the debate that one product of being outspent over the summer was that Virginia voters haven't gotten a full picture of him.
He cited his role in helping secure a writ of actual innocence for Thomas Haynesworth, a man who spent 27 behind bars for rapes he did not commit.
"If I were to identify one thing that I was proudest of in my time in office, it's that case," he said. "And you know, if you read an ordinary paper and you watch my opponent's TV ads, that's probably not the conclusion that you come to."
Indeed, Mr. Cuccinelli has been outgunned by a fusillade of ads over the summer that has presaged a slow but steady movement of the polls in the direction of Mr. McAuliffe.
The latest RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Mr. McAuliffe with a 4.2 percentage point lead, at 43.1 percent to 38.9 percent. A poll from Rasmussen released earlier Wednesday showed Mr. McAuliffe ahead 6 points, 44 percent to 38 percent.
A third-party candidate not onstage at Wednesday evening's debate, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, has polled between 5 and 10 percent.
Both candidates had minor stumbles on issues they have struggled with in the past. Mr. McAuliffe was unable to put a price tag on his plans to expand government, and Mr. Cuccinelli could not identify any loopholes he would eliminate to pay for a $1.4 billion tax cut he proposes.
And, of course, both sides were quick to claim victory.
"I think I laid out my case that I'd work in a bipartisan, mainstream way," Mr. McAuliffe said afterward. "I talked about the different Republicans who are supporting my candidacy, ... I laid out my case why I should be elected governor, working in a bipartisan, mainstream way, and my opponent could not answer the question of how he would pay for his tax cut, why he wouldn't support the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. So there was a real distinction tonight."
Asked how he would pay for his proposals, Mr. McAuliffe said he would find savings in state government. He also supports expanding Medicaid as part of President Obama's health care overhaul — a move he said would save the state $500 million.
"If we don't get the Medicaid expansion, then I'm not going to commit a dollar amount that at the end of the day, we may not have any money for," he said, likening Mr. Cuccinelli's tax proposal to a "fairy tale."
"It's like I came here on a unicorn tonight," he said.
Though Mr. Cuccinelli didn't identify specific exemptions, he did say that "if we don't get the cuts, we don't get to do the taxes."
"We're going to have to sit down and do an analysis of each one to figure out which ones are working better than the others, and working means providing economic benefits beyond just whoever gets the tax credit or the exemption — that's the standard of measure," he said afterward. "That's something that you don't get without bipartisan support, and so it only makes sense to go through that analysis on a bipartisan basis."
Mr. Cuccinelli has recently adopted a general theme that even if voters don't agree with him on every issue, they'll always know where he stands as the GOP has tried to seize on Mr. McAuliffe's shifting positions on issues like energy, immigration and health care.
His campaign has persistently sought to gain traction by highlighting the failures of GreenTech Automotive Inc., a company that was supposed to serve as proof of Mr. McAuliffe's business acumen but which has not lived up to projected production or employment levels.
The company has also drawn scrutiny from the federal government over its use of a federal program that offers visas to wealthy foreign investors, and a government watchdog group released a report this week that revealed the company was using Mr. McAuliffe's name as late as March, even though he announced in April that he had stepped down in December.
But polls have shown that the issue has not resonated with voters, and the car company rarely came up in Wednesday's debate. Mr. Cuccinelli referenced it in his closing remarks by saying Mr. McAuliffe had "sold more visas to Chinese citizens than his failed company has sold cars."
Surveys show more voters are familiar with Mr. Cuccinelli's own issues with gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., CEO of a health care supplement company. Mr. Cuccinelli recently wrote an $18,000 check to a Richmond charity to pay for things like a plane ride, a visit to a vacation home visit and a turkey dinner.
Mr. McAuliffe again seized on that theme during the debate, pledging an executive order limiting gifts to his family and administration to $100, sarcastically noting that $100 could still buy a lot of turkey.
The debate, held in McLean, was sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. It was moderated by NBC News political director Chuck Todd. A third and final debate is scheduled to take place Oct. 24 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg — about a week and a half before the Nov. 5 election.
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